The Basics of Running: Proper Running Form

As I was sitting here writing my recent post “The Basics of Running: Hills & Hill Training” there were points where I was talking about how runners need to maintain the proper running form. Then I thought about the article I wrote before that, “The Basics of Running: Speed Training” and the article “The Basics of Running: Finding Your Perfect Pace“; and how again, I talk about “the proper running form”.

Then I realized that over and over I talk about “the proper running form”; however, I have never talked about what proper running form really is.  (I am siting here hand slapping my own forehand at this point!) Learning to have the proper form while running will help you to achieve the best race results, help you run more efficiently, and more importantly will help you reach the finish line safely and enjoyably.

When runners maintain good body position — head over shoulders, shoulders over hips, hips over the mid-foot upon landing and arms swinging directly ahead — you run with good form and use less energy to run faster. If your arms, shoulders or back hurt or feel tense while training, you need to adjust your running form.

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(Thanks New Balance for the photo above!)

Remember — to run farther, run faster and to run with less chance of injury and otherwise savor the joys of running require you learn the proper running form.  It will take attention, practice and patience, but you can do it!

The Basics of Running: Hills & Hill Training

HILLS — The dreaded word that most runners hate seeing, talking about or training for.

Let’s jump back in time three years to when I first started running. Living in Michigan we have parts of our state that has amazing hills to run, while other parts of our state is as flat as the Great Plains. I began to train for my first few races and being a new runner I picked the flattest areas I could to train on — can you blame me??

Then it happens… the same thing that eventually happens to every single beginning runner.  One day you show up on race day all excited, expecting to PR, you take off and about a mile or two into the race it happens — you hit a hill. And not just any hill — a hill that appears to be the biggest hill you have ever seen (okay, maybe I am exaggerating just a little bit, but at the time that is how it feels) and then you realize that you have never ran up a hill. “Okay, I can do this!” you say to yourself as you charge up the hill; and 10 feet in your spent, having to stop and briskly walk the rest of the hill.

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Hills are tough and challenging for even the most experienced runner, so if you are just starting out and have to walk hills that’s okay!  Do not get discouraged with yourself. Hills break your rhythm, they make it harder to run a fast time and they put an immense stain on your body. Training to run hills is hard and it sucks; however, hills are an excellent way for you to build your strength  improve your speed and build your mental strength and confidence in successfully tackling hills.

Why Hill Running Works
Most runners today understand the importance of combining strength training with their regular running routines. Strength training helps to strengthen the tendons and ligaments, reduces the risk of injury and will help to improve your overall running form. The problem is that most runners tend to a majority of their strength training in the gym with specific workouts like squats, leg extensions, shoulder presses, and other weight lifting workouts. While exercises such as these will help increase your strength and muscle power, they do it in isolation of your running and focuses on individual joints and small sets of muscles.

Hill training forces the muscles in your hips, legs, ankles and feet to contract in coordinated fashion while supporting your full body weight, just as they have to during normal running. In addition, on uphill sections your muscles contract more powerfully than usual because they are forced to overcome gravity to move you up the hill. The result is more power, which in turn will lead to longer and faster running strides.

Now that we know that hill training — as much as it can stink — is incredibly good for you. So, how do you go about doing it?  First and foremost, you should have a good 6 to 8 weeks of running with a nice base established prior to beginning any hill training! Next:

Find the hill(s): Look for a hill that is 100 to 200 meters long. You want a hill with an incline that is steep enough to test you, but not so tough that you wont be able to maintain your running form.

These are two of the hills I hill train on in Mason.

These are two of the hills I hill train on. The hill on the right is on Elm Street and the hill on the left is on Park Street in Mason, MI.

Before you get started, make sure you warm up. Just like every other day you run or speed train, make sure you warm up properly! Try to get a 10 to 15 minute slow job before you actually start your hill training.

Don’t stare at your feet. Focus on the ground about 10 to 20 feet ahead of you, as this will help you stay mentally focused.

As you start uphill, shorten your stride just slightly.

Do not try to maintain the pace you were running on the flat surface. You are aiming for equal effort going up the hill as well as down the hill, not equal pace.  Trying to maintain the pace you were running on a flat surface will leave you exhausted later in your training session or towards the end of a race.

Work on maintaining your running form. Your posture should be upright. Do not lean forwards or backwards.  Your head, shoulders and back should form a straight line over your feet; and you should keep your feet low to the ground.

If your breathing begins to quicken too much it means that you are either going too fast, you are over-striding or bounding too far off the ground as you run. Use a light, ankle-flicking push-off with each step you take and avoid making an explosive motion. Making an explosive motion will only waste valuable energy. If the hill is long or the gradient increases, keep shortening your stride to maintain a smooth and efficient breathing pattern. If the gradient decreases, extend your stride again. Try to maintain the same steady effort and breathing throughout the run, including going up and down the hill.

In a race or when you are training make sure you run through the top of the hill. Do not crest the hill and immediately slow down or pull back of your effort.

Accelerate gradually into the downhill. Most runners make one or two obvious mistakes when running downhill. They either sprint, which can cause severe muscle soreness later on, or they are so hesitant to surrender to gravity they are constantly braking, which will fatigue the quadriceps muscles.

Try not to let your feet slap on the ground when you are running downhill. Step lightly and do not reach out with your feet. Slapping your feet can be a sign of weak muscles in the shin area, in which case you need to work on strengthening them.

Try to visualize gravity pulling you down the hill.

Keep your feet close to the ground, just like when running up the hill, for maximum control and make sure you land lightly.

As you increase your pace coming down the hill, work on having a quicker turnover rather than longer strides, though your strides can be slightly longer.

The key to efficiently running downhill is to stay in control. When you start, keep your strides slightly shortened and let your turnovers increase. When you feel in control, gradually lengthen your stride.

If you start to run out of control when running downhill, shorten your stride until you feel like you are back in control again.

Just like speed training, when doing hill training do not do hill training more than once a week. Make sure you try mixing up the hills you train on –- some short and steep, and other longer ones with a smaller incline.

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Thanks to Runner’s World for help with some of the information above! 

The Basics of Running: Speed Training

I have never been shy about talking about my speed. There is no bones about it — I am NOT a fast runner. For three years my goal has always been “just to cross the finish line”.  It reality I have always thought of myself as somewhat of a “lazy” runner. Just pushing myself hard enough to finish, but not as hard as I should to finish with a decent finish time. However, this year my goals are different. I am tried of being a slower runner and I am determined to work on my speed this year — knowing that I can push myself harder than I have in the past.

Runners, including myself, often find themselves stuck in second gear on race day — never being able to push themselves.  In order to help fix the problem, the answer is as easy as adding a small dose of speed workout into your every day training plan. Without speed work you end up using the same muscles in the same manner every time you lace up your sneakers and hit the pavement. Then when it comes to race day you find yourself stuck in second gear from start to finish. In order to start shifting speeds, you need to give your muscles something new in order to give your muscle memory some new stimulation.

For newer and experienced runners one thing you will learn is speed training is neither fun nor easy! Adding speed work to your training plan has a lot of benefits, including improving your overall performance, form, efficiency, and confidence. However, speed work is dangerous if it is not done properly and runners can injury themselves easily while speed training if they are not careful and take some precautions before just jumping into it.

Here are some great tips for those who want to start doing speed workouts:

Establish a Good Running Base
If you are a beginner runner of you have taken an extended break from running, you should be running consistently (which means 3-4 times a week) for at least three months before you start doing any speed work!

Pick the Right Course & Surface
During speed sessions you are less likely to pay attention to potential hazards because you are going to more uncomfortable than you are during an easy run, and you are going to be really focused on your workout. Try to pick a course that is relatively traffic-free and look for a smooth, obstacle-free route. You are going to feel like you are running incredibly fast — so make sure your training route is free of sidewalk cracks, potholes on the road, tree or roots on the dirt path, pine cones or other natural debris. I would highly recommend that everyone do their speed work on a rubberized track, which runners can find at most local high schools! Other option is to do speed work on a treadmill indoors.

Always Warm Up
Just like every other day when you are about to head out on your run — always, always, always begin with a 5-10 minute warm up doing an easy jog/run before you begin your speed work. Warming up gets your blood flowing, slowly elevates your heartrate and body temperature, and gets your muscles warmed  up and ready to go. Jumping into speed work without a proper warm-up will greatly, and I emphasize GREATLY, increase your chances of injury. Even if you do not get injured, the quality of your workout will suffer because you will feel uncomfortable when you start.

Do Not Start Too Fast
Runners who are new to speed work sometimes make the mistake of running way too hard and way too fast for every interval. You need to put in a good effort, but you do not want to run so fast that your breathing and heart rate are totally out of control. Try to run your intervals consistently so that your last interval has the same amount of effort as your first interval. If you feel like you have nothing left for your last interval or the last few minutes of a tempo run, you did it too fast!

Focus on Proper Running Form
Speed training will help improve your biomechanics and your running form — so do not let your running form fall apart when you are running fast.

Do Not Skip Your Cool Down
A 5-10 minute cool down at the end of your workout is just as important as your warm up.  Easy running, walking, and stretching after you finish your speed work will prevent blood flow from pooling in your legs and will help flush out the lactic acid and other waste products from your muscles.

Rest the Day After
Do not be tempted to run hard two days in a row. You may feel fine the next time, but trust me your body is still recovering.  Some runners will experience more muscle soreness two days later. Give your body some down time by either taking a rest day or doing an easy cross training workout the day after doing speed work.

Do One Speed Workout Session A Week
Do not get too enthusiastic and do two sessions of speed work a week.  A little speed training will go a long ways.  Even just by adding one session of speed work into your training plan will make a big difference in your overall running performance. Once you improve your fitness and confidence you can add another session — but again, never do speed work two days in a row!

Okay, we have gone over some helpful tips on how to properly speed train, so I am sure you are sitting there wondering — well HOW do I speed train?

There are lots of speed training plans out there that you can follow, so here is one of them:

Week 1: Cruise intervals: 6 minutes hard; 1 minute walk or jog, 6 minutes hard; 1 minute walk or jog; 6 minutes hard.

Week 2: Tempo run: 20 minutes at tempo pace.

Week 3: Hills: 6 x 2-minute hill (3 percent grade on treadmill); jog back down (or jog 2 minutes at zero percent grade on treadmill).

Week 4: Intervals: 6 x 600 meters; 2-minute recoveries (jog or walk).

Week 5: Fartlek: 25 minutes of alternating hard and easy running.

Week 6: Intervals: 1 x 1,200 meters; 4- to 5-minute jog or walk; 2 x 600 (3-minute walk or jog recoveries); 1 x 1,200.

Week 7: Hills: 8 x 2-minute hill (see Week 3).

Week 8: Intervals: 8 x 400 meters; 2-minute walks or jogs.

Week 9: Fartlek: 30 minutes of alternating hard and easy running. (Try a race after Week 9 or 10 if you wish.)

Week 10: Intervals: 2 x (800, 600, 400, 200 meters); walk or jog recoveries equal to interval times.

Week 11: Repetitions: 5 x 300 meters; 4-minute rests; 5 x 200 meters; 3-minute rests.

Week 12: Repetitions: 10 x 200 meters; 3-minute rests.

Just remember — whatever training plan you pick make sure you follow the tips above to give yourself the best chances to avoid injury. In the end listen to your body. Your body will tell you if you are pushing yourself to hard.